“I’m sorry I hurt you,” a repentant Kanye West repeats as he makes his way across the TMZ bullpen with his arms outstretched. This is just moments after he seemed to imply, on live television, that black people bear some fault for enduring the violence of chattel slavery for centuries. I don’t know that anyone saw his apology coming so soon—or ever.
Just a second before, he had turned about the room like a victorious gladiator on the floor of the coliseum, next to the cadaver of rational thought. “What do you think? Does it sound like I’m thinking freely to you?” His own version of “Are you not entertained!?” They were obviously not entertained.
After, a TMZ team member named Van Lathan expressed his disapproval and frustration, Kanye was immediately transformed from contrarian to conciliator. “I love you,” he says, reaching out to embrace Van.
I’m sorry I hurt you when I put the MAGA hat on.
I’m sorry I disappointed the black community.
I’m sorry I disappointed you. I’m sorry I hurt with my words.
I just want everyone to love one another.
Love is a keyword in Ye’s explanations behind his recent embrace of conservative firebrand Candace Owens, his raving endorsement of Donald Trump, and his posting selfies sporting an autographed Make America Great Again ball cap.
Whatever Kanye is up to—a publicity stunt for his upcoming album, a protracted piece of performance art, a lead up to an actual presidential run, a public mental breakdown (God forbid!), or a just genuinely expressing himself—there is something significant and familiar about the way he’s talking about love.
The Trouble With Love
In some ways, Kanye’s antics present a living caricature of some version of the American spirit: rugged individualism (I’m an independent thinker!), exceptionalism (I can single-handedly make everyone love each other with my tweets and hugs! I’m thatpowerful), and anti-intellectualism (“I am a proud non-reader of books!”). Like it or not, these are our nation’s values on display. And the way that he talks about love—“We tried hate already and it didn’t work. Let’s try love.”—is very American.
And the notion that all we need is a good kumbaya to heal the cracks and fissures in our society is a fantasy to which many Americans subscribe. Let’s just all realize that “we’re all a part of the human race,” and everything will be okay, some believe.
But let’s be clear. There has probably never been any true confusion in the history of humankind about who is human. There have been times when people constructed elaborate philosophies, theologies, and pseudosciences to dehumanize certain people. But there was nothing in nature that ever truly suggested to the men (and they were decidedly male) that built societies predicated upon racial injustice that the people whose dignity and liberty they systematically assaulted were actually any anthropologically different from them. They made that crap up in order to secure their interests at the expense of the humanity of others. And they knew it.
The problem is not that we don’t know that we are all human beings but that, in view of that very fact, we treat each other so inhumanely.
But I digress…kind of.
No Amount of Hugs Will Do
Imagine: someone asks you to borrow—key word: borrow!—a hundred dollars. You agree. Months pass and that same friend is posting selfies from faraway paradises. You ask them, “How is it that you have trouble paying me back $100, but you’ve managed to make it to Cabo?” Their response is “I’m sorry I haven’t paid you back. I love you.” That’s all well and good, but apologies and affection don’t pay debts. Yet that’s the kind of love Kanye expresses at TMZ, the kind of “love” much of white America believes will heal our nation’s racial wound, and they are wrong.
Much of white America is unwilling to educate themselves on the topic of racism, to discover how they have been complicit in systems and support institutions that were designed to advantage—and continue to disadvantage—certain racial groups. They would much rather hug.But hugging will not fix discriminatory policies in employment and housing. Hugging does not lift the stigma of danger that causes white people to call the police on black people for asking for directions to school, walking out of a house with bags, or sitting in a Starbucks. Hugs do nothing to change the discrepancies in the way communities of color are policed and imprisoned. No amount of hugs will balance the scales of economic inequity in this country that is directly related to racial violence.
Specific actions must be taken to dismantle the systems and institutions that discriminate against non-white people in this country, and to construct systems and institutions that yield social equity. We can just “love one another” all we want, but until that “love” includes actual societal transformation, it will always be inadequate.
America promises its citizens “liberty and justice for all,” and until that bill is paid, absolutely no amount of hugs will do.
The Urgent Curiosity of Love
We’re not thinking soberly enough about what it means to love.
It’s simply not loving to walk into a room and tell a black man that his ancestors are to blame for the horrors they suffered from the Middle Passage to the end of the Civil War. To consciously inflict that kind of harm, for no other reason than to pat oneself on the back as a ‘free-thinker’ or to sell albums, is the epitome of selfishness, and love is not selfish.
Furthermore, its meaningless to apologize for an offense you have no intentions of preventing in the future. And Kanye, as far as we know, has no intentions of educating himself out of racial ignorance. He’d rather learn about racism in the most frustrating, laziest way possible—parroting things he’s heard without fact-checking them for himself, and depending on informed people like Van to prove to him that he’s in error. And this too is not love.
When a friend tells me that sometimes the way I say things offends them (and I am told this often), my love for them creates an urgent curiosity about our relationship. I simply must know what it is that I am doing that is causing that person to hurt, so that I can at least try to avoid it in the future. That isn’t the kind of love we saw from Ye. And it’s not the kind of love much of white America has for black people.
There is a surfeit of literature on racism spanning centuries at our disposal with the click of a button. And many white people, often told that they transgress some racial taboo against their black friends, and also knowing such an extensive library exists to equip them to do better, still choose to remain ignorant on the topic of race. Where is the urgent curiosity love provokes that would lead white people on a quest for reconciliation?
White America is also too quick to believe rumors about us to love us. White America is quick to believe that black people are inherently more violent and criminal than white people, looking for no information to the contrary. Quick to assume, without looking into it, that “black lives only matter when they’re killed by police.” It’s as though they’re looking for reasons to disbelieve us. But that’s not usually how we respond when we hear bad things about someone we love. Love demands that we investigate such claims before we accept them. Again, where is the urgent curiosity that love provokes?
We know that love does not knowingly harm. Love provokes us to care for others. Love is interested in loving better. And love does not assume the worst of the beloved. And by that measure it has always been easy to discern that much of white America is only playing lip-service when they say “let’s all just love one another.” That’s how we know it’s not substantial when Kanye says it too. You cannot truly love someone and choose to remain ignorant of and complicit in their pain. You must choose.
Love provokes us to search for truth. And the truth demands that we do something.